Symbols: The Boats


One symbol from the early church that we will start with is the boat. It’s not much to look at. As a matter of fact, the drawing was very rudimentary with no special images. We would not look at it twice except to think a preschooler drew it for a parent’s refrigerator. However, the image carried a heavy missional meaning for the Early Church. The entire image along with certain particular images that would accompany the boat picture was not only an indicator of the presence of the Christian community, but also reminded all the disciples of what their purpose was.

The first and most obvious element is the boat itself. The boat recalls the story of Noah and how God used Noah and his family to save the world from destruction. The Early Church found this story to be a prime example of what their mission was. If we are to be reflections of Christ, we have to take on the mission of Christ, which was to save humanity and all of creation. This was a pretty stout message in this image, since they were a minority group. But this small group was called to save and change the world. By painting this image, they made a declaration that they would stay on track with God’s mission.

Another part of this image, the cross in the mast, was crucial, although the image does not make it easy to see. This was not just a standard image required of this small group, but an indicator of who defined this group. The boat was the church, but the mast, a necessary piece of any sailing vessel, was defined by Jesus. Note that it was not the Bible or some ritual. It was the person of Jesus who defined the Church. The early church believed that in order to interact with the Church, you had to interact with Jesus. This is a very stark contrast with the modern church which seems to indicate that if do a ritual (baptism, sinner’s prayer, etc.) you are in. The early church had at least two of the rituals common in church today, but they could not work around Jesus. This image let them know that Jesus is the image we advertise. Nothing else and no one else took His place.

Two other images would also be found. One was the Chrismon image. You may have seen this image and it looks like an X written over a P. It’s actually the first two letters of the Greek word for Christ and it reinforced the point found in the cross as the mast of the ship. The other image was the bird or dove. Why a bird? It goes back to the baptism of Jesus where the Holy Spirit came down in the form of a dove. The Spirit carried with it connotations of wind from the old testament, which make sense when you think of sails in a boat needing wind to move. Also, in the first creation story (Genesis 1) the Spirit is described as hovering over the earth’s waters. The Spirit is a very creative force and helps people understand where they need to go. These people understood that they need direction and, at times, a very creative force if they were going to survive. They were always on the edge of experiencing persecution. God’s Spirit was the force and it was and still is the most creative force in the universe. In the end, it was up to God to drive the boat forward, humans just had to decide whether to fight it, which never ends well, or join its path, which always ends well. This brings up a very serious question for us today. Do we intentionally follow the Spirit regardless of the destination?

This image turns out to be very complex and involved, but the power inside the image is what is tells us today. How do we define ourselves? Who are we following? Do we really understand our mission? So many times, our churches begin to look more like a ship junkyard than a sea worthy vessel ready to take on the challenges God will take us toward. It all seems to center around that mast. If we have Christ as our core definition, then we will begin down a path defined by God’s intent. We will begin to live on a mission. We will be driven by God’s spirit. Instead of just looking at our calendars for Sundays and potluck dinners, maybe we should ask how it looks to sail with Christ every day of the week. Maybe we should be asking God where He wants to take us instead of asking where we want to take ourselves. We have the opportunity to sail on the greatest mission the world has ever experienced. We just have let Christ through the Spirit direct our every move.